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Is Jason Zucker poised to have his breakout season?

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ZuckerMeme

SB Nation 2014 NHL Preview

Jason Zucker has been the subject of much promise and much pain with the Minnesota Wild fanbase. His OT game winner against the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2013 playoffs is a moment that will carry a lot of weight with Wild fans for a long time to come. And yet, his defensive liabilities and injury issues last season made him the target of much anguish and had him on a lot of people's fantasy GM trading blocks. With all of this seemingly behind him, just what should our expectations be for Jason Zucker this season?

Look at any scouting report on Zucker and you'll notice a recurring theme start to emerge. Speed. Zucker is certainly not the fastest guy to ever put on a pair of skates, but the kid can fly. With his underrated hands and nose for the net, Zucker is a threat to score on just about any shift on the ice. His transition to the NHL has been less than smooth, however.

His size leaves his head about elbow-high to a lot of defenders. His defensive game has been called into question, and with injuries plaguing him last season we did not get much of a chance to see if he was able to grow more over the offseason. So much of what we know about Zucker is coming from the small sample we got in the lockout season, as well as his limited time last season as well as in the preseason.

Jason Zucker is coming into his 4th season in the NHL, although he only played 6 games in his first go around when he was signed and brought in after finishing his season at the University of Denver. Zucker was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, 59th overall, by the Minnesota Wild. In 2009 and 2010 Zucker helped guide the USA U18 squad to gold medals in the IIHF World U18 Championship, and also helped bring home a gold for team USA in the 2010 World Juniors. In 78 games over his freshmen and sophomore season with the University of Denver, he racked up 45 goals and 46 assists for 91 points.

The kid has excelled at almost every level, and yet his struggles in the NHL seem to be the story nobody can forget. But has it really been that bad?

Scoring Stats Goals Assists Ice Time
Season GP G A PTS +/- PIM EV PP GW EV PP S S% ATOI
2011-12 6 0 2 2 -2 2 0 0 0 2 0 10 0.0 11:02
2012-13 20 4 1 5 4 8 4 0 0 1 0 34 11.8 11:16
2013-14 21 4 1 5 2 2 3 1 1 0 1 40 10.0 12:59
Career 47 8 4 12 4 12 7 1 1 3 1 84 9.5 12:00

Jason Zucker has played just over half of a full NHL season and hasn't seen a lot of minutes. If one were to dig into some of the fancier, and understand that he is still just a kid at 22 years old, you'll get that he's still growing, and he's primed to start producing at an NHL level real soon.

Russo posted some projected lines yesterday that had the Wilderness all in a flutter. Slotting Jason Zucker on the left wing with Charlie Coyle centering the line and Nino Niederreiter on the right side. A very intriguing combination to say the least. Looking into the WOWY factor surrounding Jason Zucker last year with these two, one can begin to see the thought behind this potential move, although it's not without it's question marks.

Jason Zucker 5v5 with 2013-2014
Player Pos TOI GF/20 GA/20 GF% CF%
Jason Zucker LW 247:54 0.645 0.484 57.1 43.0
Charlie Coyle C 152:44 0.655 0.524 56.6 40.9
Nino Niederreiter RW 44:49 0.446 0.446 50.0 50.6

It will be interesting to see how this line plays out if it happens to stick for awhile. It's nearly impossible to gauge how these 3 will play alongside one another as the sample size from last season is so small, and due to Zucker's limited playing time, deciphering the stats can be a bit of a guessing game. Zucker, being paired with Coyle for the largest bulk of his near 250 minutes last season, has some pretty terrible Corsi For numbers. This is telling us they do not get a heap of chances on the ice, but when you slide over to the left 1 column you will see that despite the numbers indicating they get pinned in their own zone, their bend but don't break mentality on defense allows them to break out of the zone and produce more points than they allow.

Zucker's numbers last season, are a major drop-off from his previous season, where he spent more time with seasoned veteran Matt Cullen and a clumsy Devin Setoguchi.

Jason Zucker 5v5 with 2012-2013
Player Pos TOI GF/20 GA/20 GF% CF%
Jason Zucker LW 211:18 0.947 0.568 62.5 46.4
Matt Cullen C 147:33 1.355 0.678 71.4 49.8
Devin Setoguchi RW 154:05 1.168 0.779 60.0 48.0

Numbers like these could almost leave you wondering how we let these guys go. Until you realize how small the sample size is, but even if they had more time, regression couldn't be that bad, could it? Zucker paired with Cullen and Seto was pure gold. How could his numbers have such a dramatic drop-off just one season later? Even with the loss of Cullen, you could expect his numbers to drop a bit, but a GF% dropping nearly 15 percentage points? What happened?

Zucker has never been a positive Corsi guy in the NHL, the big difference in 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 is detailed in his usage as well as his linemates. Jason Zucker has a career average of 12 minutes in time on ice a game. His average time on ice last season increased by almost 2 full minutes per game over the 2012-2013. And then of course, there is the quality of competition he went up against. So obviously with an increased playing time, we should see a boost in the numbers, right?

zuckerusage20122014

Despite getting a majority of his ice time along side Cullen, Zucker was playing against some lower-end competition. His time certainly wasn't as sheltered as Mikael Granlund, who saw a lot of offensive zone starts against worse competition. Zucker also benefited from having a center with a career faceoff winning percentage of 55%. Cullen and Zucker were almost clinical when it came to getting up the ice and preventing the other team from putting points on the board. Yet Zucker's production the next season with increased ice time did not translate to more points.

zuckerusage20132014(1)

Here we see Jason Zucker got more "sheltered" offensive zone starts, but also went to work against some stronger competition. Yet when paired with Coyle they had a tendency to either score, or lose the offensive zone and get hemmed in for awhile. The silver lining in all of this is the fact that Coyle wins about 54% of his faceoffs, and with their bend but not break defensive play they still managed to score at a higher rate than they allowed goals.

The simple fact here is that Jason Zucker is still somewhat of an enigma on the ice. He's just 47 NHL games into his career, he hasn't seen a lot of time on the ice and when he has he's tending to struggle defensively. His linemates look to play a huge part in just how he performs at the NHL level, but do not seem to affect his point production. So has he grown during the offseason? Does he have a chance to put it all together and finally get that breakout season we all hope he has?

Zucker has had a strong preseason this fall, and if this was any indication of what we can look forward to this season, he is primed to show up in a big way. Jason Zucker saw increased ice time, whereas his career to this point has him averaging 12:00 of ice time per game, in the preseason he saw on average over 18 minutes of time on ice per game, even notching over 21 minutes in his preseason debut. In his 3 games he played this fall, scored 1 goal and also had an assist which if your transposing that out has him projecting to score more in this coming season. It is just the preseason, so take that for what it is, but Zucker has looked good and that's why he'll be on the opening night roster.

Jason Zucker still has to prove he is not the defensive liability we have all made him out to be, but we would do well to understand that although he tends to spend more time in his own zone than in the attacking zone, his defense does not break-down into goals at the alarming rate some might think. When you put a couple of big bodies on the ice with Zucker as well, it should help open up the ice for him where he can exploit his speed and deploy his deadly shot. With an increase in ice time, and a bigger role on this squad, I think that this is the year we will finally get a clear example of just what it is we have in Jason Zucker.

Special thanks to Hockey Abstract and Stats.HockeyAnalysis as well as Hockey-Reference for the stats, charts and graphs.